There are several fun things to do in Harlem, so if you haven’t ventured to this part of New York yet, it’s time to make the trip. As one of the coolest neighborhoods in NYC, Harlem has a unique culture that you won’t find anywhere else. Harlem’s landmarks offer a glimpse into the neighborhood’s artistic and cultural legacy, so it’s well worth visiting.
Harlem is best known for the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, in which Black writers, musicians, and intellectuals made a splash with new artistic styles. They also sought to embrace and uplift their cultural traditions, making Harlem the Black mecca of NYC that it is today.
To give you an idea of Harlem’s location, it’s in Upper Manhattan and bordered by Central Park in the south, the Harlem River in the north, and the Hudson River to the west. Fifth Avenue runs along the side of the neighborhood, creating the eastern boundary. Several of the top attractions in Manhattan are near Harlem, so you can easily fit this neighborhood into your travel plans.
Below, I’ll share the best Harlem attractions and activities for your visit. While there isn’t a bad day to check out Harlem, if you’re in town on Sunday, I recommend taking this tour to visit the most popular places and attend a gospel church service. However, if you can’t go on Sunday, this tour is also great.
1. Apollo Theater, one of the most famous places in Harlem, New York
First, a visit to Harlem isn’t complete without seeing the legendary Apollo Theater. For over 100 years, this landmark theater has hosted some of the top performers in the country, spanning music, comedy, and more.
During the swing era, figures like Duke Ellington took the stage, while over the decades, other stars like Richard Pryor, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin performed here. To this day, the Apollo is a well-known establishment for Black entertainment, hosting public events every week, including amateur stand-up comedy nights.
In addition to the performances, the Apollo Theater is a beautiful place to visit in Harlem. The Neoclassical-style building has been restored and renovated over the years but remains a local gem for New Yorkers. It’s also a designated New York City Landmark and will hopefully entertain crowds for decades to come.
2. Attend a gospel service, an unforgettable thing to do in Harlem
A Sunday gospel service is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the local culture of Harlem, NY. There are over 400 places of worship here, mostly Christian churches, and religion is a big part of everyday life for locals. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the gospel music and camaraderie of Sunday services.
You can attend a local Mass on your own or take a tour like this one. I recommend a tour if you’re not familiar with church services or you’re unsure about which church to go to. Again, there are hundreds to choose from, including one of the oldest African-American Baptist churches in the country. Abyssinian Baptist Church was founded in 1808 and stands out for its Gothic and Tudor-style architecture.
If you take the tour, you’ll join a local church family and attend a Sunday service of gospel music, prayer, and community. During the worship service, you’ll experience the spiritual community and Baptist traditions of the church while mingling with the warm and welcoming congregation. From the music and the sermon to the elaborate church fashion, it’s a lot to take in, so a tour can be a good option.
This tour also includes a brief Harlem sightseeing walk to visit a few local attractions, historic homes, and monuments. You’ll learn about the Black history of Harlem while getting the opportunity to meet new people, making this one of the best walking tours in New York City.
3. El Museo del Barrio, the best museum in Harlem, New York
Harlem is also home to one of the top museums in NYC. El Museo del Barrio is one of the most significant Latino cultural institutions in New York, with thousands of items chronicling 800+ years of Caribbean and Latin American history.
The collection includes archaeological objects, traditional artifacts, and modern pieces. It’s worth spending a couple of hours here discovering contemporary art, folkloric masks, and other exhibits. El Museo del Barrio also has an interesting array of pre-Columbian items as well as an impressive collection of Puerto Rican art.
Not only is this one of the best museums in Harlem, New York, but admission is pay-what-you-wish. So, if you’re looking for a cheap or free thing to do in NYC, this is a great place to check out!
4. Bill’s Place, the best place in Harlem for live jazz music
Listening to live jazz in Harlem, NYC is another way to enjoy the local arts scene. If you’re here on a Friday or Saturday night, I recommend stopping by Bill’s Place, an unassuming jazz club and BYOB. Here, you can enjoy a live performance by Bill Saxton, one of the top names in New York’s jazz scene for the past 30 years.
Bill’s Place is one of the best places to experience Harlem nightlife, and the atmosphere is super friendly and intimate. The club has an old speakeasy vibe, and it’s quite small, so you need a reservation to get in.
Another spot to check out is Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz club that hosts a variety of performers. Unlike Bill’s Place, Minton’s Playhouse has a bar and a full dinner menu, so you can have a nice meal while enjoying the music.
5. Eat the best soul food in Harlem, New York
Speaking of food, Harlem is the place to try mouthwatering soul food since there are several excellent restaurants in the area. While it originated in the South, soul food has become widespread throughout the country and is a popular cuisine in the Black community. The best restaurants in Harlem, New York serve up hearty portions of comfort classics like fried chicken and collard greens.
For example, Sylvia’s Restaurant is one of the best places to eat in Harlem if you’re looking for authentic Southern comfort food. Known as the “Queen of Soul Food,” Sylvia has a delectable menu of chicken and waffles, BBQ ribs, mac and cheese, and more. There is even a gospel brunch menu, so you can come here after attending a Sunday service.
Near Sylvia’s Jacob Soul Food Restaurant specializes in Southern cuisine and Caribbean food. Along with Jamaican chicken and short ribs, the restaurant has a fresh salad bar and homemade pies and cakes.
If you need more options, consider Melba’s Restaurant, a cozy venue with classic dishes like fried catfish and sweet potato pie; or Red Rooster, which is owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. This place has a more creative take on soul food and is open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch.
6. Studio Museum in Harlem, another interesting place to visit in Harlem
Visiting the Studio Museum in Harlem is another fun thing to do in Harlem, and you only need an hour or so to peruse the collection. This art museum focuses on artists of African descent and includes a permanent collection of paintings, drawings, multimedia installations and more. In addition, the Studio Museum regularly hosts resident artists, so there is a rotating display of pieces.
This is an interesting place where you can explore the history of the African diaspora. The Black Wall Street collection is particularly thought-provoking, while the Diaspora collection provides a thorough overview of the civil rights and Black Power movements, spanning decades and the globe.
Finally, there’s no cost to enter, so if you’re looking for an indoor activity, consider checking out this free museum in Harlem, New York.
7. See the Graffiti Hall of Fame, one of the coolest things to do in Harlem
Along with gospel services, soul food, and jazz music, Harlem is home to the Graffiti Hall of Fame, another interesting place to see during your visit. This outdoor art gallery was founded in 1980 and has adorned the walls of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex ever since.
These graffitied walls offer the perfect canvas for up-and-coming street artists and add a splash of color to the neighborhood. Local and international graffiti artists come here to create distinct works of art, often with a social or artistic message. In addition, the Graffiti Hall of Fame organization choose a new theme every year, so the walls are constantly changing.
Whether you’re an art lover or you’re simply passing by, don’t miss this free Harlem attraction. Just be aware that since it’s on school grounds, you can only visit on weekends.
8. National Jazz Museum in Harlem, another one of the best places in Harlem, New York
Not only can you see live jazz performances in Harlem, but you can also explore the history of this music genre at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. This is another free museum in Harlem, New York, and the perfect place to pop into if you have a spare hour or so.
The museum’s collection includes audio recordings from the 1930s, with performances by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and their contemporaries. There is also a video archive and an exhibit with photos and other media preserving Harlem’s jazz history. Many of these items came from American saxophone player Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’s personal collection.
The National Jazz Museum is also a great place to experience the culture of Harlem firsthand since several live events and programs are held here. The museum is open Thursday-Saturday and admission is free, although donations are appreciated.
9. Visit Marcus Garvey Park, a free thing to do in Harlem, NYC
For some outdoor time, head to Marcus Garvey Park, a beautiful green space where you can enjoy the fresh air. Named after businessman and activist Marcus Garvey, the park is one of the best spots in Harlem to take a break and people-watch.
On any given day, you’ll see people playing chess, walking their dogs, or watching their kids at the playground. The park is also home to a historic Harlem landmark, the Mount Morris Fire Watchtower, a 47-foot-tall structure built in the 1800s.
There are also various sculptures, playgrounds, and playing fields at the park, in addition to a recreation center, an amphitheater, and a swimming pool. So, if you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll find several fun things to do here, although any time of year is a good time to get some exercise and take a stroll in the park.
10. Langston Hughes House, a legendary place to go in Harlem
Finally, the Langston Hughes House is another famous place in Harlem that you can’t miss, especially if you’re a fan of literature. This historic brownstone rowhome was the residence of American poet, playwright, and activist Langston Hughes from 1947 until his death in 1967. He was one of the pioneers of the jazz poetry movement and a well-known figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes’ poems beautifully articulated the struggle of the Black experience while also uplifting and empowering the community. His works are remembered today at the Langston Hughes House as well as the American Poets’ Corner at St. John the Divine.
As for his old residence, it was built in 1869 in the Italianate style and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also home to the I, Too, Arts Collective, a non-profit that amplifies the voices of underrepresented communities in the arts.
And those are the top things to do in Harlem. I hope you learned more about this neighborhood and you’re excited to see all that it has to offer. Don’t forget that you can download this map which includes all the Harlem attractions I mentioned.
Finally, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment if you have any questions or you’d like to recommend another place to visit in Harlem. I’d love to hear from you! Have a wonderful trip!